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July 12th, 2005



Keynote Speech, Pacific Education Conference
Majuro, July 12, 2005
David B. Cohen

Iakwe, Alii, Aloha, Hafa Adai, Kaselehlia, Len wo, Mogethin, Ran annim, Talofa and Tirow.

It's quite an honor to be here. You know, I don't think I've ever spoken in front of so many teachers. And I have to say it's making me a little nervous. It's giving me a flashback to my childhood. I feel like I have to give an oral report and you're all grading me. But instead of giving my oral report in front of one teacher, which is bad enough, I have to give my report to over a thousand teachers. That's a thousand times as scary. I'm so nervous right now that all I want to do is skip this class, sneak off to the Boy's Room and smoke a cigarette. Not that I ever did that when I was really in school....

I have to tell you that I really admire the job that you do, out there on the front lines. There are so many challenges that we face. We have a long way to go to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of educational achievement, and we don't have the resources that we need.

I think that the greatest challenge that we face is making sure that people throughout the islands understand the value of education. Everybody says they value education, WE say we value education, but I'm afraid that too many of our people don't really understand the importance of education, not enough to truly value it. The people in this gathering, we understand what's at stake.

Let's talk about what's at stake. I had the honor of being the commencement speaker at Northern Marianas College recently. What I told the graduates there is a fitting message for students throughout the Pacific. I told them that they live on a small island, but they also live in a great big world. Like it or not, we live in an interconnected global economy, where those who are educated will get farther and farther ahead, and those who are not will get further and further behind. The Pacific, as a whole, is already far behind, and sadly, it is not catching up.

They say now that the world is flat, and with the internet, improved telecommunications and reduced trade barriers, everyone is basically competing with everyone else, no matter where they live. John Donne said that No Man is an Island. But in today's interconnected world, it's even fair to say that No Island is an Island. There's no place to hide from the competitive pressures of the world economy, not even on a remote island like Majuro, Rongalap, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Weno, Yap, Babeldaub, Rota, Guam or Tutuila.

Those of us who understand what's at stake have a moral duty to educate our people about the true importance of education. And if there are cultural barriers to doing so, then maybe we have to think about transforming the culture.

Speaking of culture, I think we can learn a lot by observing how different cultures do things. I think I'm uniquely well suited to observe different cultures: One of my parents is Samoan, one of my parents is Jewish, my wife is Indian, and I'm related by blood or marriage to Tongans, Filipinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Hindus and Muslims. For those of you who know me, if you're wondering why I'm always walking around looking confused, that's why.

I know this is a sensitive subject, but I think it's important to look at cultures around the world not in a judgmental way, but to try to figure out what some cultures do right about educating their children to move forward. My cousin, who was raised in American Samoa, went to college in California. His roommate was Asian, and he was really struck by the fact that when his roommate was studying for his finals, the roommate's parents came over to cook for him so he could concentrate on his studies. In most Pacific cultures, the children always serve the parents, and here the parents were serving the children so that the children could succeed academically.

It's something for us to think about. In this flat, competitive world, our children are competing with cultures that are doing whatever it takes to allow their children to succeed, including reversing our notion of the traditional roles between parent and child.

Again, we all say that we value education, but do we really value it in the way that other cultures do? Another one of my relatives was saving money to put himself through college. Shortly before he was planning to start college, his father took a chiefly title. The father had a ceremony, a saofa'i, in Samoa, and the son gave all of his college money for the ceremony. The son ended up never going to college. The son demonstrated his love for his father by giving up all of his college money. Forgive me for saying this, but I wish that the father had demonstrated his love for his son by refusing to accept it.

I realize that what I'm saying is almost sacrilegious to some people, and I don't mean to offend anyone. But maybe we have to at least consider new ideas in order to move forward.

Here's a cultural example from all the way in Africa. In Uganda, the World Bank discovered that only 13% of aid funds that were allocated for schools ever reached the schools. About a fifth of the money that was meant for teachers' salaries was taken by "ghost workers." These findings were published by the schools and the local newspapers. The parents were outraged and demanded action. As a result, a few years later, 80-90% of the money was reaching the schools, which is still too little, but quite an improvement. The schools were receiving $18 million more per year than they were receiving before.

When I read about that story from Uganda, I thought to myself: Could that type of thing happen in the Pacific? Could parental outrage about ghost employees and misspent aid funds result in more money finding its way into the classroom? This reminded me of a situation that we found in Chuuk, where we went to investigate how our Compact funds were being spent. What we found there were schools that apparently had ghost employees-not to mention ghost teachers, ghost textbooks, ghost desks, ghost chairs, ghost school supplies, ghost cafeterias and ghost lunches. I don't know if these were schools or haunted houses.

Now let me hasten to add that this problem isn't isolated to Chuuk, but Chuuk is where we happened to do a detailed investigation. We will do others. Let me also stress that when we brought this to the attention of the FSM National Government, they were as outraged as we were. I recently visited the new Governor of Chuuk, who has also pledged his support to ensure that Compact funds are properly spent in Chuuk. In nations like the FSM that consist of thousands of remote islands, it's impossible for the government to be everywhere at all times. That's why we have to take strong, decisive action whenever we find a problem. Speaking for the U.S. Government, we have ZERO TOLERANCE for the waste, fraud or abuse of funds that are supposed to be used to educate the children of the islands. I know we have counterparts in the FSM National Government and Chuuk State who feel the same way.

But let's get back to my question: As things stand today, is it likely that parental outrage can result in positive change for education in the Pacific? Outrage isn't something that we always do very well in the Pacific. Sure, some of the Native Hawaiian activists know how to get outraged, and some of the Chamorro activists in Guam are pretty good at getting outraged, but in between, there is a kind of cultural passivity, and also a healthy respect for authority, that might prevent the type of parental response that happened in Uganda from happening here. Also, there's not enough of a press. Where would these findings be published? Would anyone read them? Would anyone challenge authority, and demand that their children's schools get the money that was meant for them?

Maybe that would not happen, but on the other hand, maybe it would happen, or could happen. For one thing, the coconut wireless works very well. And there are signs that a healthy press is starting to develop in parts of Micronesia that have not had a press in the past. You're lucky to have The Marshall Islands Journal here, by the way. And we have seen encouraging signs lately that public outrage-not noisy demonstrations, but a kind of quiet outrage that can travel through the villages-has thwarted politicians that have attempted to abuse their power. So I believe that there is hope after all.

Notwithstanding some questions I raise about culture, I recognize that culture is our ally. When I spoke at the Northern Marianas College graduation, trying to encourage students who had just earned a two-year degree to go on to complete their bachelor's degree, I found that the analogy that really hit home was the analogy of a Samoan tattoo, or a pe'a.

I told the students that an education was like a Samoan tattoo, and I gave them three reasons why:

a. First: An education, like a tattoo, stays with you for the rest of your life.

b. Secondly: Getting an education, like getting a tattoo, can often be a painful experience.

c. And the third reason why getting an education is like getting a tattoo: If you start it, and don't finish it, IT'S VERY SHAMEFUL.

Now, I had used that analogy when I spoke at the college graduation in American Samoa, and of course everyone got it. In Samoa, they have a disparaging term for someone who quits before his tattoo is finished: a pe'a mutu, or broken tattoo. It's a mark of shame.

When I decided to use this tattoo analogy in my Northern Marianas College graduation speech, I wasn't sure if it would strike the same chord. I realize that Micronesians also have a tradition of tattoos, but I didn't know if the analogy would register in Saipan in the same way that it registered in Samoa. I was pleased to find, however, that that was the one thing that the students in Saipan really remembered about my speech. A number of people have told me that since my speech there, associate degree graduates have been going around telling each other, "Hey man, you need to finish your tattoo."

Now, I don't mean to offend anyone in the audience that did not finish their education-or their tattoo, for that matter. I'm just trying to make people feel that they must, as a matter of cultural pride, finish their education. And remember, the world is flat, and we're competing with cultures that are almost fanatically committed to education. In some cultures, parents find a way to get their children educated, period. They do not let anything get in the way of their children graduating college-not lack of money, not illness, not weddings, not funerals. In fact, in these cultures, the only funeral that might excuse a student not graduating college is the funeral of the student himself.

I don't want to finish this speech without sharing some thoughts about how each and every person in this audience can make a positive impact on education in the Pacific. For this, I sought out the advice of Joann Morris, the education expert from our Honolulu office. We hired her from PREL, actually.

Joann told me that I could inspire the audience by talking about this wonderful book that she had just read called The Tipping Point. I told her, "Joann, I have not read The Tipping Point." She said, "Don't worry, I'll tell you everything about it that you need to know."

And I wondered: Isn't that a little like trying to b.s. your way through a Book Report, when you've really only seen the movie? The last thing I want to do is try that in an audience full of a thousand teachers, because you guys are experts at figuring out when a student is b.s.'ing and hasn't really read the book. I still remember the book report I handed in when I was in school about The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I got an "F." And I couldn't figure out why, because my report went into great and eloquent detail about how Robert Redford did this, and Mia Farrow did that. To this day, I cannot figure out how my teacher knew that I didn't really read the book. You guys must have ESP.

In any event, Joann tried to explain to me the important concepts of The Tipping Point. She told me: "In order to make an important idea spread, you have to make it contagious." I said, "What do you mean by contagious?" So she gave me an example: "If you get up when you make your speech and you start yawning, soon everyone in the audience will unconsciously start yawning too. Yawning is contagious." And I said: "Listen, Joann, I do not need to resort to cheap tricks like that. If I want to get everyone yawning, all I have to do is give my speech. It happens every time I give a speech." And she said, "No, no, you're missing the point."

Well, after repeated attempts, I think Joann finally got through to me. So here, before an audience of a thousand teachers, it is my pleasure to present my book report on The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell.

I said earlier that it's the moral obligation of each and every one of us here to spread the idea that education must be raised to paramount importance throughout the Pacific. How can this book help us do that? Well, the author cites key elements needed to make an idea take hold, which I'd like to share with you. One that is significant to us as Pacific Islanders is the importance of personal interaction. Gladwell refers to three personality types that are key to spreading a new idea, concept or behavior.

He refers to Connectors. Those are the individuals in our communities who know everybody, who have wide social circles, and who have the ability to bring together a wide range of people. If you share a new idea with a Connector, he or she will know exactly who to tell to spread the word even further. In your home community, who do you know who is a Connector? How can you get these Connectors involved in improving education? If you engage them, they will carry your message to the furthest parts of your island.

A second personality type is the Maven. These people are information gatherers. They love to have the latest information and to pass it on to others. They may not be as socially outgoing as Connectors, but they love to share information. Think for a moment of the Mavens, the information-gatherers in your home community. How can you get them involved in gathering and sharing information about the needs of your educational community? If they possess all the relevant data, have them speak on your behalf or write articles in the newspaper, if you have one. Share that information.

The third type of natural pollinators of new ideas are the Salespeople. These individuals are adept at persuading others. Salespeople make convincing arguments for needed change. They start and sustain social epidemics. Who in your community are the Salespeople? How can you engage these personality types in rallying the community or the legislature to bring positive change to your school system?

We all know people who are one of these three personality types: Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople. Seek them out and engage them in your educational pursuits. You should see your efforts multiply through their innate behaviors.

Malcolm Gladwell also provides direction about how to ensure our educational (or other) message reaches as many people as possible. We need to be mindful of three rules.

The first is the Law of the Few. This rule means that it takes just a few committed people to create change. It refers also to the three social personalities cited earlier. Just think of the change that could happen if you gathered together those three key personally types: social connectors, information gatherers and sharers, and salespeople. Seek these people out and get them as committed to education as you are.

The second rule is the Stickiness Factor. The Stickiness Factor means that messages must be memorable. Think of a current advertising slogan: "I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to GEICO"; "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." Advertisers know how to make a message "sticky". If people aren't getting our educational message, maybe it isn't impactful enough. Maybe we need to make small changes in our presentation that can make a big difference. We want our message to be irresistible and move people to action. And if I may, how's this for a sticky message: "Hey man, you need to finish your tattoo."

The third rule is the Power of Context. That rule refers to the environment in which our idea, product, message or behavior is operating. We know that ideas or strategies that might work on the mainland U.S. will not automatically work here in the Pacific. We must tailor our ideas and reforms to our community context.

As you move forward to improve education, remember that a few well-placed people (the Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople); a simple yet well-thought out, "sticky" idea; and a respect for our unique Pacific context can create major change.

Too often, we think that we are limited in what we can do because our Pacific populations are small, our human and financial resources are few, and our communities are isolated. However, in his book Malcolm Gladwell clearly indicates through numerous examples that a small number of critical people and small but significant changes to an idea, product, message or behavior can be infectious and spread, until the Tipping Point is reached and dramatic change can occur.

And how will we know when we've reached the Tipping Point? Well here's a thought: I mentioned before that the U.S. Government has Zero Tolerance for the waste, fraud or abuse of education funds for the islands. I also said that we have counterparts in the FSM National Government, and I believe in the Chuuk State Government, that feel the same way. I suggest that we will have reached the Tipping Point when we can say that all of the parents have Zero Tolerance for the squandering of their children's education money-the parents of Chuuk, parents throughout the FSM, parents in Palau, parents in the Northern Marianas, parents in Guam, parents in American Samoa, parents in Hawaii, parents here in the Marshalls and throughout the Pacific. And we will have reached the Tipping Point when we can say that parents throughout the Pacific are as committed to their children's education as parents in Singapore and Japan, and that parents have Zero Tolerance for landowners who take back school property out of greed, for teachers who don't show up, and for children who don't graduate. The day that we can say all of that, ladies and gentlemen, is the day that we can say that we've finished our tattoo.

Thank you, G-d bless you and have a wonderful conference. Kommol tata.